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Professor’s life story proves opera-worthy

Elyn Saks’ revealing memoir of her lifelong struggle and journey with mental illness is translated into music

Elyn Saks
Elyn Saks, second from left, poses with the three performers who portray her in the opera The Center Cannot Hold. (Photo/Joseph Mango)

Who among us has lived a life worthy of an opera? USC’s Elyn Saks, an acclaimed author and MacArthur Fellow, can now stake that claim after the recent debut of a powerful new chamber opera based on her 2007 memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.

Although her best-selling and award-winning memoir reveals her lifelong struggle and journey with mental illness, the opera itself focuses on Saks’ years as a Yale law student — when she experienced her first psychotic episode and was hospitalized and diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Through sheer force of will, Saks sought treatment and eventually returned to school, where she made friendships and forged the beginnings of an impressive career focused on advocating for others with mental illness.

That career has spanned 30 years, with Saks advancing the understanding of mental illness through her work as an author, scholar and USC Gould School of Law professor. In 2010, she founded the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy and Ethics at USC Gould with the award money she received when she was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship “genius grant.” As director of the institute, Saks has described her mission as stimulating discussion, developing solutions and changing the way society addresses mental illness.

Psychiatrist Kenneth Wells, a longtime friend of Saks, composed the opera and collaborated with her on the libretto. Its three-show run in July at the UCLA Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, where Wells is director of the Center for Health Services and Society, quickly sold out.

Translating the story

To bring the opera to life, Wells and Saks met eight times over three months as they “translated” her story into music. Wells said that he had an advantage as the subject of his opera was someone he knew personally. “I was able to go beyond the book,” he told an audience of psychiatrists, modern music aficionados as well as friends and colleagues of his and Saks who gathered  for a pre-opera discussion.

Despite being intimately involved in the creative process, Saks described conflicting emotions when she heard the opera performed for the first time.

Ken did such a good job of capturing what it’s like to be diagnosed as a schizophrenic.

Elyn Saks

“It was a weird feeling, but also kind of cool,” she said. “I think it was difficult for me to watch because Ken did such a good job of capturing what it’s like to be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. I was blown away by how much he ‘got’ my experience.”

The opera, presented by the Pacific Opera Project and Wells’ center, begins with moments from Saks’ childhood when she first noticed the symptoms of her illness and segues to her breakdown during her first year at Yale Law School, which resulted in her being hospitalized for five months. During this period, Saks was forcibly restrained, and these scenes, as performed on stage, are among the most harrowing.

Yet, overall Wells described the opera as “hopeful, just like Elyn herself.” As he wrote the opera, he added the point-of-view of a young psychiatrist who identifies with his patient and has dueling impulses: to protect Saks from harming herself, while simultaneously trying to help her treat and control her schizophrenia so that she can return to her studies.

‘Turning point’

“I was trying to capture a turning point,” Wells said. “During this period, Elyn had to adapt her coping style. I am impressed with her resolve to withstand all that happened to her and move forward, return to law school and become ‘somebody.’”

The opera’s performance, in which Saks is portrayed by three different actresses, proved revelatory, even for colleagues who have known and worked with Saks for years. “The opera made me think through Elyn’s experience in a way that I had not thought through by reading the book or relating to her,” said Richard Van Horn, president emeritus of  Mental Health America, Los Angeles, after seeing the performance. “The opera had an emotional impact that was much greater. You are living this person’s mental illness.”

As an opera, The Center Cannot Hold concludes with Saks celebrating her graduation. But in many ways, the best was still to come for Saks, who describes her original prognosis for living with schizophrenia as “grave,” her professional and personal potential limited.

“Yet that’s not how my life turned out,” Saks said. “I’m happily married to the love of my life, my husband, Will. I work in an intellectually stimulating environment. I’ve managed to stay out of the hospital for more than 30 years. I’m proud of that.”

Professor’s life story proves opera-worthy

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